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Southern Exposure: Giant Made the Biggest Splash, But It’s Not the Only Business Bringing New Life to South Atherton Street

by on January 08, 2020 5:00 AM

Things move a little slower on the south side of Atherton Street, but that doesn’t mean nothing is going on. With a new anchor store at the Hills Plaza and other growth along the corridor over the past 10 years, the area appears to be experiencing a new heyday that shows no sign of slowing down.  

The stretch from Slab Cabin Run to Meyer Dairy is bustling like it never has before. 

Related: College Township Receives Funding to Upgrade Traffic Signals at South Atherton Intersection

Worth the wait

When Giant Food Stores opened its new supermarket in the Hills Plaza on June 7, it came with much fanfare. Folks around town had watched the build-out of the space going on for months and were buzzing with anticipation and questions about the move from across town on East College Avenue.

The spot the store now occupies had sat vacant for 16 years, after Ames department store closed in 2003.

It seems to have been worth the wait. The sparkling store has not disappointed, with a 30-seat eatery that offers 300 varieties of local and national beers and wines to go along with a wide variety of prepared food options, including a salad bar, sushi, and an Asian hot bar.

The store also includes a Starbucks and a full-service pharmacy to go along with innovative grocery shopping technology such as Marty the robot.

Of course, the move away from the East College Avenue location came with some naysayers, but Giant said at the time that the new store would be an upgrade for State College consumers.

“Offering our customers a larger store means we are adding plenty of fresh ideas and new convenient amenities to their Giant shopping experience,” Wendy Evans, manager of the new store, said last spring. “From an expanded offering of fresh, quality products, to online shopping and in-store beer and wine, our newest store offers something for all of our State College customers.”

Hills Plaza owner Anthony Vita, of the real estate company Vita & Vita, was playing the long game when it came to one of the prime locations in the plaza.

Vita says he had offers over the years for the large space along Atherton Street, including for a casino, a medical facility, and a large fitness center, but he was waiting for Giant.

After all, he knows nothing drives traffic quiet like a grocery store. With all the homes in the area, Vita knew there was a need on that side of town.

When Sheetz opened across the street in late 2011, Giant helped with some of the access plans for South Atherton Street, says Vita, because the store were planning to come to the south side, even back then.

At first, Vita says, Giant considered knocking down the former Ames building and adjacent vacant storefronts and rebuilding further back in the lot. Vita says he didn’t want to lease the other vacant storefronts on that side of the plaza, because it wouldn’t have been fair to lease them with the potential of the building later being knocked down.

But Giant instead decided just to remodel the existing building. Now that the store is up and running, Vita & Vita is ready to start leasing some of those other open storefronts.

Officials from Giant did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Further down, Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, Rite Aid, Sherwin Williams Paint Store, and other small businesses have been steady in the plaza. 

Vita notes that during the first 20 years Plaza after Hills Plaza opened in 1972, there was never a month where any of the stores were vacant. With Giant on board, maybe things will get back to those lofty heights, he says.

Welcome competition

Old-timers might believe that Hills Plaza is named after one of the first anchor tenants, Hills Department Store (which was replaced by Ames in 1999), but that is just a coincidence, says Vita. He says the plaza was named Hills because of geography. Anyone who has run or ridden a bike on South Atherton knows the plaza sits on a hill.

For Vita, the location is special. He remembers working with his dad in the 1970s to develop the area into what it is today. In the 1990s, Vita & Vita added the South Hills and Short Hills portions of the plaza and soon had an anchor store that has been vital to that side of town since.

Weis Market has been anchoring the South Hills Plaza since South Hills opened in the early-1990s, but even with Giant’s gleaming new store, the business remains strong.

Martin H. Gutierrez is back managing the store after four and a half years at other Weis Markets in the region. In that time away, he has seen the growth in the area.

“The biggest impact here is the Giant coming in across the street,” says Gutierrez. “So that is a big impact to this store, with the newness of what they’ve got going on; [we’ve] definitely seen some impact from that. The area itself has definitely grown tenfold in probably the last five years. The new KFC across the street, Sheetz upgraded, there is a lot of growth all the way from Meyer Dairy all the way down.”

Things are still moving and shaking at Weis, too. Part of the store was revamped not that long ago to include beer and wine sales. Weis also will be starting a new program in produce that aims to provide the lowest prices in town. The store added a new sushi company, new deli sandwich offerings, and new bakery offerings with an emphasis on cakes.

Weis Markets assistant manager Christina Harris lives on the other side of town, but does her shopping on South Atherton, and not just because she works there.

“I come to this side of town to shop because of ease of access,” she says. “You don’t have to fight someone on their phone trying Facetime. I have almost run over people in Kohl’s because of the younger clientele that go in their bubble and aren’t aware of their surroundings. But over here it is more of a family atmosphere. You have more interaction with people. You will see our customers and they are hugging someone they see in the aisle, saying, ‘How are you? I haven’t seen you in a while.’ … It is more of a home environment where the other side of town is the hustle and bustle. It is peaceful here.”

In the Short Hills Plaza behind Firestone, new-age businesses like a Your CDB Store and a Vape Vibe mix in with other stores.

Your CDB Store manager Gabby Watson says the business is growing through word of mouth after opening four months ago.

Martin H. Gutierrez and Chrissy Harris manage the Weis Market that has anchored the South Hills Plaza since the early 1990s. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert.

Signs of good things to come

Grant Rosenberger opened his Ace hardware store in the South Hills Plaza 10 years ago. After the closing of O.W. Houts & Sons and some other grocery stores in the area, he noticed that there was a need for a locally owned hardware store. He chose to set up shop in Hills near Weis because he knew that grocery stores bring customers to the plaza. 

Since then, he has built a loyal following of customers who come in for the service that he and his longtime staff provide. 

“The nice thing about this side of town is that it is not as busy as North Atherton … there aren’t as many traffic lights, and not as much student housing, and so there is just less traffic,” he says. “It is a little bit easier to get in and out, and then there is also a lot of green space with Meyer Dairy, so it definitely is a different feel.”

And with Giant and other stores coming in, Rosenberger says he is seeing more foot traffic in the plaza. He thinks it is a sign of more good things to come.

One of those good things is just next door to Ace Hardware. Since 1997, parents in the Centre Region have been using Kid to Kid to sell, trade, and buy clothes for their children. Everyone knows kids grow fast, and Kid to Kid allows parents the opportunity to resell things that no longer fit or are no longer needed, and then buy the next size up. 

Recently, Jeff and Chelsey Carroll bought the State College Kid to Kid store with plans of opening the next level of resale a few doors down with a new store called Upscale Cheapskate. The new store will include offerings for teens and young adults, featuring stylish, gently used clothes and accessories.

Soon, they will start accepting clothing for the new store at Kid to Kid and then at the new location in February and March. After a couple of months of building up their inventory, they plan to have a big grand opening this spring. 

“When we talk to customers, some have been shopping at Kid to Kid for the entirety of their children’s lives … and every once in a while we get these comments, ‘Today is a bittersweet day, my son or daughter has finally got big enough that they sized out of the biggest sizes at Kid to Kid,’” Jeff Carroll. “So it is, ‘Thanks for the memories.’ But now they are starting to realize Uptown Cheapskate brand is kind of the continuation of that.”

It is just another example of the growth the area is experiencing, like a kid growing to a young adult.

Grant Rosenberger has built a loyal following of customers since opening his Ace hardware store in the South Hills Plaza 10 years ago. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert

Thriving on the other side

When KFC opened its doors at its new South Atherton Street location on December 10, the line of customers went outside around the store, and traffic was backed up almost to the busy street.

People were excited to have the chicken franchise back after a few years away from the area. KCF joins McDonald’s and Taco Bell as fast-food chain restaurants on that side of town.

Nearby, Sheetz recently added beer sales. Home D Pizza Pub expanded in 2013, adding another bar area and outdoor seating.  

Rothrock Coffee is a comfy and cozy addition to the busy Creekside Plaza. Opened by BMX and mountain bikers Jamie Bestwick and Ronnie Napolitan in 2016, the store is a hit with its coffee ground in-house and sold all over the area. Rothrock, too, has seen more traffic with some of the new businesses coming to its side of town. 

“There is definitely more traffic on this side of town; we have our regulars, but maybe with day-to-day traffic it pushes more customers in,” says Abriana Mendez of Rothrock Coffee. There is “not necessarily as much to do on this side of town as far as restaurants and bars, but Rothrock State Forest is right there, there is not as much traffic, it is more quiet. This place itself is nice because it is pretty cozy, so it is a nice little place to retreat to. And I think people are willing to go a little bit out of their way for a product that they desire.”

 

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.

 



Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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